The Whangarei Heads is a walker’s paradise and according to Matthew Cattin, who undertook a mission to climb its three summits in one day, it’s criminally underrated
Whangarei Heads has stirred my imagination as long as I can remember.
Its jagged spine first entered my consciousness in early childhood, on long drives north to our family camping spot in Whananaki.
Bundled into the back of my parents’ ‘74 Holden Premiere, my brothers and I would cheer when the car struggled over the Brynderwyn Ranges to reveal sparkling Bream Bay and the sleeping dragon silhouette of the Heads beyond.
The view meant summer holidays, Christmas, and a month of camping under towering pohutukawa.
The sight still sends my pulse into a nostalgic beat on drives north – it’s my happy place.
My grandparents bought a home at the Heads in early retirement, and my parents have golden memories of flounder flapping in the freezer and picnics in the fishing dinghy, but despite its place in my ancestry, I didn’t visit the area until my early 20s.
When I finally made the pilgrimage, to walk the Te Whara Track, it felt like coming home.
Everything from Mt Manaia’s kingly spires to the scraggly pohutukawa’s mossy beards felt a part of my DNA.
Since my first visit, the magnetic Heads have reeled me in several times a year, and I’ve walked most of its tracks.
I recently played tour guide for the day, driving up from Auckland to show off the walking mecca of the north. The goal: three summits before sundown.
Te Whara: from sea to sky
After an early Saturday morning departure from Auckland, we made the Ocean Beach car park before 11am and set off barefoot over stunning white sands to the trailhead.
I’d planned the day’s summits in order of intensity and duration, so any delays would see us miss only the shortest walk up Mt Aubrey – I expected Te Whara to take around three hours.
Beginning at the southern end of the beach, the track leads steeply up sand dunes onto the green open slopes of Bream Head.
In summer, this shadeless ascent can be hellish but the views are spectacular – a clash of turquoise, white and green as far north as the eye can see.
After close to an hour, the bushline is reached – a scraggle of mānuka, nīkau and supplejack.
The climb continues relentlessly, throwing in steep flights of stairs for good measure, but near the summit we got the energy boost we needed from a local woman on her way down.
It was her first time walking the track and she was radiating exhilaration.
She couldn’t believe Te Whara summit had hidden in plain sight for so long and the beauty of it seemed to have her close to tears.
In 10 minutes, we saw for ourselves – emerging into the open, we took a left towards the rocky outcrop of the 476m summit.
Like many of the Heads’ summits, Te Whara sticks above the bushline like a hitchhiker’s thumb.
Its drop-offs are sheer, ranging from critical injury to certain death, but if the weather permits and you’re confident in your scrambling ability, the views are unparalleled.
Sitting on the edge of the thumb is an exhilarating experience, that in other parts of the world would undoubtedly be fenced off.
Kererū and pīwakawaka flap above the canopy far below, like flying fish leaping from an ocean of trees, and the deep blue rolls away into the horizon.
The Te Whara summit can be walked as a loop with the Peach Cove Track, or a point to point route over 5-6 hours on the Te Whara Track, which leads over Mt Lion to Urquharts Bay.
I’d rate it as the best view on Whangarei Heads, but its contenders aren’t far behind.
Climbing a northern icon
Mt Manaia is the most iconic of the area’s peaks, owing to the volcanic tombstone spires on its crown.
A return trip to the 420m summit costs two hours, but I would happily spend double, such are the rewards.
After a late lunch of lukewarm car yoghurt, we drove to the car park, bustling with locals of all ages.
Two young mums popped babies on their backs, hoping out loud they would stop whinging once on the move, and three youngsters charged down the gravel path to sprawl on the grass in front of us. They had run down the mountain and were eager to share advice (and a hiking stick they’d found) for the journey up.
Like Mt Maunganui, Manaia buzzes with activity, and it’s nice to see so many getting out to climb it on a sunny afternoon.
The track begins gently, curling around the southeastern flank of the mountain as it ascends through nīkau groves.
Stairs add regular punctuation, and after 40 minutes, the track reaches its first view – and it’s a doozy.
An obvious sidetrack appears on the right if your eyes are peeled, and it leads to a bedroom-sized ledge looking south towards Te Whara.
The summit is a further 10-15 minutes of climbing from here, and the track passes through an impressive kauri grove.
Just 10 minutes’ drive from Te Whara Track, Manaia’s forest has a completely different feel and impressive diversity.
We reach the summit viewing platform in under an hour, thrust through the treeline into a golden afternoon.
The scale of the spires become apparent when you’re standing next to them, and though possible to climb one, the sheer exposure and the fact they are tapu has kept me from attempting it – the views can’t possibly be worth the risk.
Mt Aubrey – our next destination – looked tiny below, curled like a cat resting on Manaia’s feet, but being by far my most visited summit, I say it punches well above its weight.
On top of the golden dome
A golden hour climb of Mt Aubrey’s 193m dome was the perfect end to the day, and arguably the best time for dramatic lighting.
From the trailhead at Tiller Park, the track spends no time pretending it isn’t a thigh-burning onslaught of stairs all the way to the dome, but its mercy lies in its brevity – it takes just 10 minutes if you’re determined.
The sidetrack to the dome summit is hidden beneath a large puriri tree after the final flight of stairs. It’s not obvious if you’re taking in the views, so don’t miss it.
The scramble isn’t for those afraid of heights, and to add to the drama, gorse bushes seem to knowingly grow in the thinnest sections of track, forcing you to choose between a painful prickling and a fall.
When the bush gives way to bare rock, the final few steps are breathtaking.
The summit is a bald dome which curves to sheer sides in nearly all directions, making you feel like you’re on a floating boulder.
To the east, Manaia’s flanks glowed orange in the fading light, and the industrial mess of the oil refinery gleamed below – a clash of nature and metal.
Te Whara stretches beyond, and it’s satisfying to see the day’s climbs doused in evening glow just a stone’s throw from our final peak.
I marvel at what has been accomplished in one day – the drive from Auckland, three gorgeous walks each different in their own right, and all completed with enough time to take in their beauty.
If there is a better weekend tramping destination in the north, I’m all ears.